How Can We Take Care Of Others If We Don’t Take Care Of Ourselves First?

For many creative people, their work is not an “outlet,” it is as important as spending time with their children, finding love, and even breathing, says Nigel Featherstone.

At the beginning of a flight recently I dutifully watched the flight attendant go through the safety instructions, which is a drill that’s been so drummed into us that most of us don’t even watch it anymore, preferring to sort out the headphones and see what’s on the movie menu. Often I don’t watch the drill either, but I did this time. Except I wasn’t really listening. Because I found myself thinking about the advice that parents must always put their own oxygen mask on first before assisting children. It just doesn’t seem right. Surely in a moment of terrifying panic we should over-ride any innate selfishness we might have and help the helpless. But, of course, the airline advice is sensible—how can a parent assist a child if the parent can’t breathe? It’s an instance of when thinking about ourselves is logical.

And if there’s one part of society that is constantly accused of thinking about themselves it’s our artists.

There is nothing like writing. There’s the heady rush when it’s all coming together: words flowing, characters forming, predicaments becoming drama; when time—real time—is lost and hours pass in the mark of a pen. Or the gut-wrenching frustration when it all falls apart as though it was never meant to be, a wordy nightmare, a mushy mess that should be forgotten as quickly as possible. And then there’s publication, attempts at publication at least, the odds so resolutely stacked against the author. Where I live, Australia, it’s estimated that only one in a thousand novel manuscripts are published. But still, despite these realities, millions of us, potentially even billions, are dedicated to some kind of creative practice—the writing of stories, the composition of music, making paintings, taking photographs, building sculptures, and acting and directing and dancing and singing. For many, most perhaps, it’s a hobby, an “outlet.” For others, however, it’s a dedicated pursuit, a serious intent, a commitment, a profession, perhaps even an obsession. 

But how to organize a life, especially a domestic life, when this commitment, profession, obsession brings in an unreliable income at best, or no income at all, or actually costs money?

The modern, first-world economy is not geared toward creativity. It is geared to full-time work and the protracted erosion of self that comes along with that. It is geared toward relegating non-income-producing activities to late in the evening and on the weekend, or just a small part of the weekend, even just a corner of a Sunday afternoon when all other commitments are over and done with and really the best thing to do is squeeze in a nap on the couch. It is geared toward home-ownership and the pride and status we hope this will give us. It is geared toward mortgages, of being chained to banks (or perhaps we’re more than merely chained—banks have burrowed their way into our brains, they know us better than anything else in the world, they own us). It is geared toward consumerism, the crippling cost of childcare, of health insurance and home insurance and income insurance, of utility bills that are forever spiraling upwards because of everything we have in our homes, much of which is unnecessary.

But for many, what’s necessary is time to create—that painfully hungry desire to write the novel, to be in the play, to paint the picture. Do artists need to do these things? Not, perhaps, in the sense that they need to breathe, to eat, to sleep. But they do need to do it to feel alive, so breathtakingly alive that they want to leap out of their skin; they need to do it to feel truly themselves, to be who they’re meant to be. I know of a multi-award-winning Australian novelist who is also a husband and a father and an attorney; he says he writes whenever he has a spare moment—in the gaps between meeting clients, in that minute or two in an elevator. I know of a well-reviewed photographer who, though married with children, manages to “take off” every Friday so she can make photographs, except she admitted to me recently that while she loves her children dearly, if she had her time again she wouldn’t be a parent, she’d focus on her arts practice. I know of a poet, a single man, who despite having a prominent job with the government gets up at dawn every morning to write poems for the first three hours before donning a suit and tie and going into the office.

Some of these artists are well-known—you can sometimes see them on the television, collecting their latest award—or are steadily on their way to the acclaim they deserve. But still they are accused of being selfish or indulgent. Because they have the audacity to guard their “creative time.” Because they consider sacred the hour they manage to eek out of their daily existence to spend at the writing desk, piano, or easel. Because they fight tooth and nail for what they need.

I know of a woman with teenaged children who, when ensconced in her latest film script, puts a sign on her study door: “No, right now you can’t ask what’s for dinner.” I know of a print-maker who, in the weeks before a major exhibition of his work, received a note from his housemate: “While I’m working, you’re doing nothing—please can you do the washing up?” Personally, when I’m writing I’ll only answer the phone or reply to emails in an emergency—i.e. life-threatening—situation, but still I get messages saying, “You’re ignoring your responsibilities again.”

As the poet Mary Sarton wrote in Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaid Singing (1965), “The creative person, the person who moves from an irrational source of power, has to face the fact that this power antagonizes.”

Is it ever justified—morally, ethically, socially, financially—to say: Today, the most important thing in my life is this dance that I’m trying to choreograph, or this poem that I’m trying to perfect, or this glass vase that I desperately want to heat and shape and craft and refine?  I think it is. But is creation—whatever that word means—more important than family and friends? Yes, I think it can be. Is it natural—whatever that word means—to significantly reduce your income, or move to a much smaller house to get a smaller mortgage, or, fingers crossed, have no mortgage at all in order to make creativity the center of your life rather than have it shoved to the periphery? Yes, I think it can be natural, and right, and justified to do this.

It comes down to the whole being and the long view. Can a mother be a good mother if her time to write short stories is relegated to an hour each side of midnight? Can a father be a good father if he’s had to give up his band practice because it clashes with his kid’s sports practice? How happy can we truly be, how wise and helpful, how loving, if we are denied that which makes us look to the sky with a wild smile? How loyal can we be to those we love when we can’t be loyal to an activity that makes us understand what love is all about?

In the end it means redesigning our lives—reorganizing how we make it through each and every day—by putting a priority on the act of creation: that finding the perfect word is as important (and perhaps as futile) as finding the perfect partner; that caring for the play that you’ve been working on is as important as playing with your children; that dreaming up your next painting is as important as going to sleep. And then we might know that selfishness can be more intelligent than we think, potentially even altruistic. And then we might find ourselves living in communities, not just economies.

Is all this really worth fighting for? Yes. Because it saves lives.

Nigel Featherstone is an Australian writer. His most recent work is the novella I’m Ready Now, published by Blemish Books. For more information, visit

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